Charged with Dispatches

By Roger Davies / 9 October 2014 / History, Insights, Open Source Intelligence

OSINT is an area of great interest for IMSL and we undertake outsourced OSINT projects for a number of clients, both commercial and government.   You can see some of our OSINT data sets presented in interesting ways here. We also provide OSINT training and consultancy.

But it’s this particular blogger’s penchant to look into history and derive parallels to modern experience. At the moment I’m looking at how the British Royal Navy undertook intelligence around the period of 1792 -1815.  The Navy was essentially looking at a number of enemies at the time, including France and the US. I’m fascinated with the management of intelligence undertaken by the Admiralty and the issues involved.

The key issue, through the telescope of history, appears to have been the speed of communications.  Every aspect of the intelligence cycle is constrained by the speed with which a message took to get between two points, and that certainly impacted on the effectiveness of decisions. In one sense that has changed, today, but in other senses it hasn’t.  The Admiralty did everything it could to speed up every aspect of the process – it might take 45 days to get a dispatch from the West Indies to the Admiralty but there were processes in place to shave hours and indeed minutes off that.  Ships carrying the flag signal “Charged with dispatches” were given priority over everything.

One implication of the communications speed resulted in a not unreasonable reliance on local press (OSINT) to inform and provide data, and the Navy devoured local press with real hunger.  There are some good examples – Nelson himself relied only on OSINT (French newspapers procured through Spain) for months on end while patrolling the Mediterranean in 1803 and again in 1804. Of course this implies that a deployed naval unit had no supporting central staff to consume and assess this OSINT for him – it was the local commander’s responsibility himself to undertake this analysis. OSINT was also processed centrally by the Admiralty when possible – quite often used for “starting” an intelligence cycle.  Here’s a good example, described by Lord St Vincent to Nelson in a letter dated 31st July 1801

“We are certainly very defective in local intelligence: the French newspapers inform us that Carnot (A French General) has lately made the tour of the coast of Flanders, with a view to preparations of invasion, and, as he is the great adviser of all military measures of importance , I place some reliance upon the newspaper account, and will endeavour to obtain more precise information thereon”

Admiral Lord St Vincent

Admiral Lord St Vincent

There were also a number of other interesting sources of intelligence at the time. These included:

  • interviewing ships after they had left an enemy port
  • interrogating captured crews
  • interrogating re-captured prisoners of war
  • secret agents (like “Dr Maturin”)

All of these could be accessed by naval commanders acting on their own.  So deployed naval commanders had a wide range of intelligence activities to coordinate as a fundamental part of their task, and usually a freedom of action to do what it takes.

Central government also had recourse to “Sigint” – intercepted letters, which the British had systems for exploiting, both domestically and internationally.  I’ll have more on this in future posts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.